Mega Turntable Buyers Guide… Part One!

Putting together a hi-fi system that does your precious record collection justice can be a confusing and expensive process. Fear not, help is at hand. In Part 1 of his buyer’s guide to building the perfect setup, Paul Rigby turns his attention to turntables…

the buyer's guide to turntables

Vinyl is back! At least that’s what the mass media will tell you. Most of us know, however, that vinyl has never actually been away. Having worked for hi-fi magazines for many years, I could see the writing on the wall in terms of vinyl’s increasing popularity. Even during the early noughties, we were reviewing more and more turntables and fewer and fewer CD players. Something was certainly afoot.

Now, of course, turntables are everywhere, as is vinyl – but how do you play yours? Well, you might not play it all, of course. You might not even own a turntable. And in that case, you’ll no doubt be rather impatiently wanting some buying advice from us and perhaps getting a little frustrated that we’re not getting on with it. Give us a sec, we’ll sort you out very soon.
Some of you may have played vinyl, way back when. You may have stored your old turntable up in the attic. Now, retrieved and wrapped in a fuzzy, nostalgic glow and lots of dust, you’ve fired the ol’ gal up again. For old times’ sake.
Maybe you’re too young to have plugged into the fad the first time around. CDs were likely your first love, or maybe even downloads, streaming and the like. Seeing this weird stuff called ‘vinyl’, you made tentative enquiries to your parents or relations. They may have passed on their old turntable to you. A bit like a Viking elder passing on his trusty sword… but with more plastic.
Of course, there are the old codgers out there who used a turntable way back, were never fooled by the CD propagandists (oh, no!), played and bought their vinyl then and still do so now.
There are also those smarty-pants types who have always collected and played vinyl, upgraded their turntable over the years on regular occasions, have a brilliant system and feel pretty damn smug about it. To those people, I say, “Go away, this feature is not for you”.
This guide is for those who might want to buy a new turntable for the first time, or believe an upgrade will enhance the sound quality from their precious vinyl. Before we get to the recommendations, though…

Don’t go there pt. 1

Cheap and fearful

Sometimes you can get a little carried away – especially when looking to purchase your first turntable – but also when you’re looking to upgrade. There are pitfalls for the unwary. This is why it’s useful to read guides such as this and to seek out as much advice as possible. Let’s first tackle the budget arena, which can beckon the innocent with shiny things and objects that glitter.

There are turntable designs out there that may look interesting, have an aura of quality and seem reasonably priced but should, in fact, be treated like a rabid, long-toothed and particularly impolite dog.
I’m talking here about the type of turntable you tend to see advertised in the glossy newspaper supplements, lifestyle magazines and, more disconcertingly, in the windows of trendy clothes stores. The problem with those lavish lifestyle magazines is that everything featured in their pages looks sweet, appealing, nice, cuddly and trustworthy.
These record players are typically (although not exclusively) sold as an ‘all in one’ (with an amplifier and speakers built into the chassis). They scream value for money, but tread carefully – as the often scant build budget for these items may be devoted more to the looks and marketing, leaving audio priorities firmly in third place (or even lower). As you’d probably expect, players of this type offer inferior sound quality to audiophile options. Check also for examples of poor build quality, as it could be damaging to your vinyl.

Don’t go there pt.2

DJ record players

The other category that ‘consumer’ buyers may wish to steer clear of is turntables aimed at DJs. Manufacturers such as Numark, Vestax and Reloop (although the latter has recently introduced a range of ‘audiophile’ products) are favourites of DJs.

The problem is that the turntables are created as a tool with a DJ specifically in mind, not an audiophile. They exist to be used in a relatively tough working environment, which is great for the club setting, but can have disadvantages for sound quality in audiophile terms. That is, these turntables often add features that are useless to the audiophile, such as pitch adjustments and pop-up lights, with knock/bounce-friendly yet sonically noisy plinths, and arms with shaky bearings.

Don’t go there pt.3

Cheap Japanese Turntables

This ‘avoid’ I offer to you with reservations and lots of ‘maybes’, ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ – because there are exceptions to this particular rule. I shouldn’t even use the word ‘avoid’. What I should advise is that you be cautious when buying very cheap turntables (around the £100 to £150 mark) from some of the larger respected Japanese brands.

Some of these decks are reasonable in terms of build and passable in terms of sound quality but, if you can afford to buy one of these, then you can probably afford (or can wait a few weeks to save a few more pounds) to buy a turntable with better sound quality.
I’m also not happy to recommend running a turntable that encourages you to run a stylus at very heavy downforce levels that touch on the range of 3.5g to 4g.

Turntable buying recommendations

So, having covered the turntables to avoid, what do we actually recommend? Here’s a broad selection from three different price points. This is just a suggested list, no more than that. There are lots of others we haven’t been able to include due to space reasons.

Budget: Up to £600

This is a busy category, but it’s dominated by Pro-Ject and Rega

Price £175
When you look around the sub-budget market – generally below the £200 figure – the quality of the turntable products can in many cases be dubious, with the meagre build budget often concentrated in the wrong places. This belt-driven example has its heart in the right place, though. Basic it might be, but, with its quality 8.6-inch arm and Ortofon OM 5E cartridge, it does the job.

Price £329
This stalwart of the Japanese production line features a built-in phono amp, which allows you to plug straight into powered speakers or an amplifier without a phono amp built into it for those on a low budget. The turntable also features a USB socket, which will be a boon for digital fans looking to ‘rip’ their vinyl collection for later listening on a digital music player.

Planar 3
Price £550
There are classics and there are classics – and then there’s the Rega Planar 3. It’s been around for ever, incorporating gradually enhanced and evolved design tweaks, but it still retains its superb sound-quality reputation. This iteration includes a new RB330 arm and a high-gloss acrylic laminated plinth (which is now stiffer), with many other redesigned tweaks and the Elys 2 MM cartridge.

Mid-range: £600 to £2000

With more budget, you’ll get more features, and elements of finesse…

Funk Firm
Price £935
A rather sober variation (at first glance) on the outfit’s often ‘funky’ designs and famed innovation, the dual-speed Flamenca features the company’s F7 tonearm and a precision-ground glass platter, plus electronically controlled DC motor. Notice that the motor is positioned to the front-left instead of the rear. This is done to align it with the tonearm and reduce vibrations according to Funk Firm.

Price £995
This German design looks simple in its lines, with a rather stripped-down and low-key presentation. And that’s a good thing, because the priority is sound quality and value for money. This high-end brand recently released this ‘low cost’ (well, it’s low cost for Clearaudio, put it that way) model to include the excellent Concept tonearm. You also get a moving-magnet cartridge thrown in for good measure, so there’s nothing extra to buy. A plug ’n’ play deck for those who want the quality without the fuss.

Gyrodec SE
Price £1,600 (without an arm or cartridge)
Another classic that’s up there with the Rega Planar 3 in terms of reputation. The GyroDec is a phenomenon, and another deck that has gradually been improved over time with subtle but noticeable enhancements. Created in the early 80s, the GyroDec has cheated time, because it sounds better than ever – there’s no sense that the design is even falling behind its competitors. Beautifully engineered, the deck can be bought with the company’s own TecnoArm, which you can add for an extra £660.

High-end: £2,000+

Turntable designs utilising higher-quality components and fittings…

VPI Prime
Price £2,650
VPI are based in the USA and make a range of expensive turntables. This is one of their lower-priced models. The Prime Scout uses the VPI JMW-9 tonearm, plus an external motor in a substantial housing to minimise vibration. A thick and textured vinyl covers the MDF plinth; that is bonded to a 12-gauge steel plate, with an aluminium platter.

Price £5,000
Just the turntable on its own, complete with a separate power supply, the Volvere offers a belt drive, sprung sub-chassis design with a featured clamp. It’s interesting because it evolved from the (then) top-rated Acutus turntable (£12,000). Avid simplified the Acutus until the price point was lowered sufficiently.
Hence, the design is not only ‘sound’ in terms of balance and efficiency, but the sonic qualities have, in effect, trickled down from above. An SME IV arm (£2,750) is highly recommended with this model.

Origin Live
Sovereign MK3-1
Price £10,300
One of the world’s great turntable packages, and one of the most neglected. Goodness knows why. Origin Live have a slightly different take on getting the best from the turntable, placing as much emphasis on the arm as the turntable itself. Hence the Enterprise arm (which is part of the final cost above) is almost the same price as the Sovereign itself. The Sovereign has recently had a motor and power-supply upgrade.